At a certain point, the path got stranger for Devendra Banhart. Appearing out of nowhere in the early 2000s with a string of almost accidentally perfect albums, Banhart's haunted voice and familiar impressions of the ghosts of folksingers past pushed him to the forefront of what would be dubbed freak folk. Along with Joanna Newsom and the then-acoustic trip-outs of Animal Collective, Little Wings, Jana Hunter, and a host of other weirdos, Banhart produced effortlessly sublime songs, connected to a sense of earthy wonder and romanticism. Without losing his mojo completely, Banhart's albums became increasingly meandering and protracted as he went on, with efforts like 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon rambling tiresomely and 2009's What Will We Be feeling both manic and boringly predictable at once. With Mala, Banhart doesn't quite return to the lo-fi brilliance of his beginnings or continue the overwrought leanings of his most previous work, but somehow finds a way to refreshingly split the difference. Since 2005's Cripple Crow, Banhart has dabbled in different genres over the course of a single album, often with mixed results. Mala is no different. Beginning with the dark song fragments "Golden Girls" and "Daniel," he quickly shifts the mood from these eerie Vincent Gallo-esque moments of heartbreak to the icy muted electronics and zombie disco posturing of "Fur Hildegard Von Bingen." Standout track "Your Fine Petting Duck" rides a cookie-cutter '50s doo wop chord progression, with boy/girl back-and-forth lyrics setting a scene where a deadbeat boyfriend lists the reasons he was so awful for the girl trying to get back together with him. Elsewhere, Banhart experiments playfully with tropicalia, chilled-out beats, instrumental interludes, and disjointed electronics. "Won't You Come Over" borrows a synth riff from reggae-poppers Althea & Donna's classic "Uptown Top Ranking," the no-fidelity underwater power pop of "Hatchet Wound" sounds like Ariel Pink stopped by to co-produce (he didn't), and "Won't You Come Home" sprawls out with all the gorgeous airiness of Talk Talk. Instead of the overreaching, overly long confusion of previous efforts, Mala streamlines Banhart's multifaceted muse, and the songs all fit together, if in a somewhat roundabout manner. Apart from the increased cohesion, the quality of the songwriting is far higher, reminding us of the astonishing promise and tossed-off ease of Banhart's early material, and suggesting that his detours into less exciting sounds were just part of a journey that might be much longer and more rewarding than expected.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas